Smart Grids Face Health Backlash

Campaigners against smart grids say the radio networks they use will cause cancer. Peter Judge thinks they are overstating the case

Smart Grids have plenty of problems. The latest is a campaign to brand them a danger to health.

Smart grids propose a network of intelligent meters in people’s homes that will monitor electricity use, and make efficiency savings. They are being rolled out, with Berg Insight predicting they will be in more than 50 percent of Europe’s homes and businesses by 2016.

The UK has committed to smart meters, as have many other countries. The island of Malta may be the first country to complete the first nationwide smart grid, according to a release we received this week from IBM, which is managing the project.

Activists say pull the plug

Smart grids, however, have suffered a fair amount of controversy. They have been labelled as insecure; and there have been fears that the utility companies could sabotage them with high prices.

Others have wondered if the actual process of making use of the data produced by the grid might be beyond people’s patience.

But there seems to be a concerted campaign against the technology, based at least partly around the health risks – specifically around the wireless networks which are being used to put smart grids together.

Wireless networks have long been seen as the best way to hook up smart grids – and the smart grid is the first major use proposed for white space radio, as promoted by start-up Neul Networks.

Wireless health risks?

Our report on the Berg study quickly gained a reader comment, which suggested that the health risks around smart meters are so extreme that the projects are doomed. “Penetration in the Smart meter market may be over,” said our correspondent. “It may even change to a program to remove previous Wireless meter installations, even a scramble to assign liability if they can associate any of the illnesses in court.”

The comment is based on a couple of items – which are interpreted for maximum impact of course. Firstly, we are told the World Health Organization (WHO) has placed “non-ionising radiation” on a list of “Class 2B carcinogens”. The original release is here, and does indeed say that the IARC  (a WHO agency) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.  The release actually says there “could be some risk” and suggests “keeping a close watch” for any link between cell phones and cancer.

It doesn’t demand that smart meters are ripped out.

Next there is a broken link to an interview which apparently says that smart meters make 100 times more radiation than cell phones. It’s a shame the link is broken, as this part of the argument seems most unlikely. Smart meters send tiny amounts of data in very short bursts, and you don’t hold them to your head, while having a long conversation.

We also have is a link to what is known as the Seletun Statement. This is a paper put together by a group of scientists specialising in radiation health during a three day meeting in the Norwegian town of Seletun. It’s written up in glowing terms on campaigning site

Now the statement has been published in the peer-reviewed journal “Reviews on Environmental Health“. In February, One of the authors, Olle Johansson, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden put out this press release. It is strongly worded stuff: “Scientists Urge Halt of Wireless Rollout and Call for New Safety Standards: Warning Issued on Risks to Children and Pregnant Women”.

“The SmartGrid concept could require every home to have a wireless electric and gas meter in place of their existing meters,” says Johansson’s release. “If implemented, it will greatly increase the intensity of new wireless emissions in homes, schools and every other building that uses electricity and gas.”

Professor Johansson really does want to limit the roll-out of wireless until we can be sure it is safe, and agreed by email to us that this is a “strong” statement. He has issued videos arguing for caution on radio communications, on the basis of the “Precautionary Principle”.

Campaigners against smart meters are basing their calls on health issues – and meetings such as this one in Santa Barbara are getting heated.

However, so far the group has had no publicity in mainstream media, or backing from other scientific sources. People who have already made up their minds seem to be backing it with unconnected things, like the fact that Nobel Prizes are issued at the Karolinska Institute.

Update: In fact, the Institute is distancing itself from the release, which was put out by Prof Johansson and is not a consensus view from the University (see statement below).

Not convinced

As I said, what I have heard so far doesn’t convince me there is a new case against smart meters. I expect that energy levels from them will be lower than for phones, and there doesn’t seem to be major new evidence here about a health risk.

I would agree with Prof Johansson that health risks need to be monitored, but the monitoring so far has not produced conclusive evidence – except as usual in the minds of those who believe in the risks before they start to look.